Sam Donnellon | Plenty of umps and downs in this NL race

Mike Winters is just one umpire who's had problems lately.


See Marlon throw his helmet.

See Milton get tackled and injured by his own manager.

See CB see, not see, see again, then not see again.

See Chipper chirp. See Ned wail.

See Jamie Moyer pick his hat up several times and scratch his head as he tried to figure just exactly what looked like a strike to umpire CB Bucknor behind the plate Tuesday night.

See Marlon do much more than that when he figured out what CB saw at second base in that season-swinging game a few weeks back.

It sure has been a wild month here in the helter-skelter National League. Maybe baseball's best teams are over in that other league, but it can't be anywhere near as much fun as it is over here.

Over here, the genie seems to be out of the bottle again. Strike zones seem to be expanding and contracting nightly throughout the league, umpire by umpire, inducing some notable tantrums at the plate and in dugouts.

"Abysmal," Chipper Jones griped after he was called out on strikes with the bases loaded last week. "Umpires have to be held accountable."

This week, one of them was, but not for a call he made. Mike Winters, a 48-year-old veteran who was part of last year's World Series crew, was suspended for the rest of the season by major league baseball after a first-base confrontation with Milton Bradley in San Diego Sunday resulted in the Padres' outfielder suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Bradley believed that Winters had told home-plate umpire Brian Runge that he had thrown his bat toward him after a previous plate appearance. When he reached first, Bradley challenged Winters about it. Winters, according to the player, called him "a [expletive] piece of [expletive]."

Rockies first baseman Todd Helton and Padres first-base coach Bobby Meacham were close enough to hear. Helton called the exchange of words "very interesting," and Meacham said afterward, "In my 26 years of baseball, that was the most disconcerting conversation I have heard from an umpire to a player. The way Winters responded was bizarre. It was almost like he wanted to agitate the situation."

That same day in Milwaukee, after a contentious game between the Brewers and Cardinals, Milwaukee manager Ned Yost also complained about the "effort" from his umpiring crew.

"It wasn't even just today," said Yost. "It was the whole series."

So what's going on here? Since a line-in-the-sand standoff with the commissioner's office resulted in a loss of jobs in 1999, umpires had become less of a story in baseball. Many were even praised for their patience amid on-field disputes, and for their ability to walk from and not toward their agitator.

But as pennant races have percolated this summer and particularly this September, tantrums, antagonisms and blown calls have dominated the nightly roundups and factored into the outcomes of games.

And the umpires seem to be giving almost as much as they are getting.

Before last night, nine of the 16 National League teams had won between 80 and 88 games. Such parity has brought about intense scrutiny - every hit, every out, every pitch could decide who plays past this weekend and who doesn't.

It's a nightly whine now, often in several municipalities. Bucknor's strike zone the other night was driving both benches crazy. To his credit, the amiable umpire could be seen calmly holding his hand out as the slings and arrows shot from each dugout. No one was ejected. Not even close.

But it wasn't that way in San Diego on Sunday. And it hasn't been that somewhere virtually every day of this frantic finish. Marlon Anderson, suspended for two games after protesting a strike-three call in a game against the Phillies last week, called umpire Dan Iassogna's account "a lie."

"Umpires are not supposed to react as emotionally as the players," Padres CEO Sandy Alderson told the Associated Press after the Bradley affair. "They are there to control and manage the game. They are not the game."

He should know. From 1998 through 2005 he worked in the commissioner's office, in charge of evaluating and disciplining the men in blue. He even instituted technology to rate their performance on ball-strike calls. His dismissive line in 1999 about their mass resignation being "a threat to be ignored or an offer to be accepted" did not endear him to the ranks, and there has been speculation that the Padres have suffered in games from some longstanding grudges.

That doesn't explain Marlon jumping or Chipper chirping or Ned's tantrums. And it doesn't explain why some umpires seem to be itching for a fight. It's been a long, hot summer with an incredible number of teams jockeying to be in the position they are this weekend. There's been a lot of frayed nerves, a lot of close calls, a lot of missed opportunities.

Maybe that's it. *

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